The Witness of Suffering

Slaves in the Greco-Roman world were sometimes treated with kindness, but this was dependent upon the whims of masters, not legally required. Even domestic slaves, as mentioned in 1 Peter, were vulnerable to the demands of their masters, and 1 Pt 2:18 asks that they “accept the authority” of masters “with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” Possessing no right to the integrity of their own bodies, such a request could entail all forms of abuse, whether sexual, physical or other.

It is difficult in the 21st century to read the first-century advice that “if you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.” This sort of advice seems to require a mute acceptance of cruelty and tacitly reward those who perpetrate it. As we have become more aware of human trafficking today, a form of slavery that flourishes all around us, what sort of message does this passage send?


It is important to remember that in the first century, slavery was a legal institution, and manumission was dependent upon individual owners. People who helped slaves escape were accountable to the law, and runaway slaves would be subject to bloody (and legal) retribution. Since the early church was small in number and politically insignificant, the early Christian response was to encourage slaves by offering Jesus’ own unjust suffering as “an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”

1 Pt 2:22–24, which some scholars believe was part of an early Christian hymn, offers a meditation on Jesus’ suffering in the context of Is 53:4–12, a Suffering Servant song. The genuine suffering of slaves in the first century is not denied, but aligned with Jesus’ own experience. In fact, all who suffer unjustly, even in the 21st century, can identify with Jesus as the one who “when he was abused, he did not return abuse...but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” Suffering is now given spiritual meaning, so that the effects of Christ’s own suffering are applied to those who suffer in the body of Christ.

But is there a danger here that we will watch silently from the sidelines as the weak and abused suffer? It cannot mean that. St. John Chrysostom, in his treatise “On Vainglory” (No. 69), instructed Christian boys to accept misfortune when it occurred, but “never to allow another to undergo this.” Wherever suffering and injustice occur, it is our task to bring it to an end through our witness. Yet there are times when we or others might suffer unjustly, and despite all attempts to bring it to an end, we must endure it. It is here that the model of Jesus helps us understand that as Jesus was vindicated through his innocent suffering, so, too, through his suffering he has healed us and will heal us from all our wounds.

I do not want to suffer. I do not want those I care for to suffer. Really, I do not want anyone to suffer, but when we do, it is important to know that the Good Shepherd knows our suffering. 1 Peter says that we “were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” Is 53:6 makes it clear, in fact, that the source of the Good Shepherd’s suffering emerges because the sheep have gone astray and “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Jesus’ innocent suffering can help us make sense of our own suffering and give it spiritual purpose as we work to end it. His suffering also allows us to align ourselves with those who today are enslaved, physically abused, bullied or who are vulnerable for myriad other reasons. As we ourselves endure suffering and act to bring the suffering of others to an end, it is important to recognize that the goal of the Good Shepherd is not to create suffering, but to bring it to an end. We bear witness that the Good Shepherd has come that we “may have life, and have it abundantly” and to bring us all safely into the sheepfold.

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J Bills
4 years 11 months ago
It is difficult for me to make sense of this. I suffer isolation from humanity while surrounded by humans. I feel enslaved by depression and a lack of the ability to deal with it. I seek the words of Jesus and suffering but no longer feel they are pertinent to me.
Bruce Snowden
4 years 10 months ago
Mr. Bills, I was scrolling through AMERICA online and I came across your post of April 22, sent at 10:40 P.M. which means that you were at the computer when a lot of us are getting ready for bed, at least I do. So maybe you couldn’t sleep restless with your thoughts as you posted them, feeling “isolation from humanity, while surrounded by humans,” and experiencing “depression and lack of ability to deal with it.” The Lord said, “It is the sick, not the healthy who need a physician.” Jesus has told us, under such conditions as yours to seek medical help. Please do so and if you are doing so, please do not stop. In the meantime the whole Church prays for you, so in reality you are not as “isolated” from humanity” as you may feel. You are “surrounded by humans” saints and angels too. This is the Faith by which we live. St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “Pray as if everything depended on God, but work as if everything depended on yourself!” Very good advice. You are also depressed and feel that you “lack the ability to deal with it?” Please do as your doctor says and also remember what Jesus said, “Pray always and do not lose heart.” Faith is not something ventured and nothing gained. Instead one discovers that a heartfelt conversation with Jesus, or your favorite saint, perhaps a family member or friend already in the Land of the Living, will provide the strength to “deal with it” your depression productively, as the Cross lifts a little, or is removed. Remember, suffering is not all together bad- it redeemed humanity and can teach us humility as we suffer, a good thing, as Scripture assures because, “God resists the proud, but gives Grace to the humble.” In another place the Word of God says, “The prayer of the humble shall pierce the clouds.” Clouds? Yes, in every way, including the “clouds of depression.” My prayers are with you, Mr. Bills Keep your medical appointment, or begin them. Also combine visits to your doctor, with visits to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, or at least in the home of your heart anywhere. Lay it all on your doctor and on Jesus and expect help. You will get it often in ways you did not expect. And please, as you pray, pray too for my family and for me. You are not alone!
4 years 10 months ago
A wonderful and caring response. I too will pray for Mr. Bills. Sr. Maureen
Anne Chapman
4 years 10 months ago
Fr. Martens - you wrote: "the source of the Good Shepherd’s suffering emerges because the sheep have gone astray and “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”Why would God require his son to suffer for the "iniquity" of us all? Did God really "lay" this on Jesus? Or is it simply that Jesus suffered at the hands of men because he defied them?


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